What We Need to Combat Pandemics

Clifford D. Conner

Researchers working to develop a coronavirus vaccine in Brazil — a center of the pandemic in Latin America.

AS I WRITE, it is Day 77 of our lockdown regimen here in New York City, which has been called “the epicenter” of the pandemic. We are experiencing an event of historic significance.

As the author of a forthcoming book on the problems of American science and technology,(1) I was asked to address a webinar on the general topic of innovation. At the present moment, the potential innovations on everyone’s mind are in the sphere of medical science — innovative therapies and prophylactics that can save us from this dreadful disease.

The answer to the question posed by the title — “Innovation for What?”—seems obvious in this case: We want innovations that will produce a cure and prevention.

But in fact the answer is much less straightforward. The ultimate goal of coronavirus research must go beyond cures and prevention.

As the epidemiologist Rob Wallace has passionately declared, “Clearly humanity shouldn’t start reacting to a pandemic when it’s already underway. Let’s stop the outbreaks we can’t handle from emerging in the first place.”(2)

The innovations we need to stop pandemics from emerging in the first place are not to be found in the biomedical sciences but in the social sciences. The only solutions that will allow our long-term survival will require substantial, meaningful, social change in the way we produce and distribute and consume goods and services.

Yes, we do need a COVID-19 vaccine, and the sooner the better, but in the long term that is simply a technocratic quick fix, the proverbial band-aid on a plague.

And Now There Are Three

The phrase “anthropogenic existential threat” has become an all-too-familiar meme in recent years. First there was the Cold War threat of thermonuclear Armageddon.

One medium-sized exchange of hydrogen bombs between the Soviet Union and the United States could well have destroyed all human life on Earth. Cold War policymakers tried to convince us that that was an exaggeration, but it wasn’t.

More recently, we became aware that global warming could soon make the Earth uninhabitable for human beings. This pandemic adds a third item to the list of ways humanity may cause its own demise.

The perfect storm of a deadly viral strain would be one that maximizes four traits: one that can infect humans, lay low and hide itself for a while, jump easily from victim to victim, and kill a large proportion of those infected.

The odds of such a virus emerging in nature are infinitesimally small, but modern industrial agriculture has created conditions — to use a familiar phrase — that now make it a matter of not if but when.

Although viruses are natural phenomena, pandemics are nonetheless anthropogenic. The danger of ever more threatening viral contagions is a result of human activity. Gigantic poultry and livestock farms all over the world are the essential breeding grounds for novel viral infections.

The huge factory farms are a consequence of innovations in agricultural organization that first arose in the American South after World War II. Multinational poultry and livestock producers and processors such as the notorious Tyson Foods then spread them overseas, to poorer countries where even inadequate U.S. regulation wouldn’t apply and lower wages could be paid.

The spread of these factory farms was relentless. From before World War II to the postwar period, the average number of chickens in a commercial flock grew from fewer than a hundred to tens of thousands.

Rob Wallace, declared in a book published four years ago that “much of the world’s economic productivity . . . stands to suffer catastrophically if a deadly pandemic were to erupt, for instance, in southern China.”(3)

Wallace wasn’t peering into a crystal ball, he was demonstrating the predictive power of a science heretofore underappreciated by the general public and policymakers alike.

With regard to anthropogenic threats, if human beings cause them, it stands to reason that we should be able to innovate our way out of them. A tremendous amount of human creativity has gone toward solving the problem of global warming. And yet it keeps getting worse and worse. Why is that?

The answer is that the innovations have been limited to technological fixes that ignore the social context at the root of the problem. The fossil fuel industries are trillion-dollar industries, and the people who own them don’t want to lose their trillion-dollar investments. If they can protect their trillion-dollar investments by spending a few million dollars to buy political influence, that is what they will do.

If no innovation to solve that problem can be found, all the wind farms and solar panels and coal scrubbers in the world will not save the planet. There is a perfect analogy between that and why the long-term threat the pandemic presents cannot be averted by vaccines and antiviral medicines alone.

Revenge of the Poultry

Most educated consumers are aware of the extreme cruelty to the chickens that gigantic egg production factories perpetrate.

Victimized birds are silently avenging themselves for the suffering inflicted upon them by spawning plagues to torment the human race. Crammed together by the tens of thousands in warehouses all over the globe, the hens’ unhealthy bodies create a huge pool of opportunities for novel viruses to come forth, mutate, and multiply.

Poultry farms are the most notorious incubators of viral disease, but not the only culprits. Others are hog farms and other livestock farms and, increasingly, the incorporation of wild animals, including bats, into agribusiness operations. And because these bountiful breeding grounds are often located in close proximity to population centers, the transmission of their viruses to humans is increasingly likely.

The preponderance of evidence suggests that the mutant coronavirus causing COVID-19 first appeared in bats. That in no way absolves agribusiness of responsibility. The chain of causation is complex, and whether wild or farmed bats were the original source, Big Food created the underlying social and ecological conditions for the pandemic’s emergence.(4)

Despite what grocery store labels claim, the farmed animals are not “natural.” The chickens, ducks, and geese on the poultry farms, for example, are genetic monocultures — domesticated birds that have been selectively bred to a high degree of uniformity. Their resulting lack of diversity makes the nearly genetically identical fowl all the more susceptible to raging contagion.

If one bird is vulnerable to a particular disease, they’re all vulnerable to it. At the first signs of illness, the factory farms pump their flocks full of antibiotic and antiviral drugs, prompting natural selection to create “superbug” pathogens with ever-higher resistance to the pharmaceuticals.

The bottom line is that industrial poultry and livestock farms pose a clear and present danger to all of us. COVID-19 is expected to return in waves, and beyond that, the probability of novel global pandemics is all too real.

Everyone — even those who have never been moved to protest the cruelty to the chickens — should recognize that it is in every human being’s self-interest to demand fundamental innovations in the current factory farm system. We do of course need large-scale agriculture, but not in the dangerous, for-profit way it is practiced today.

Why the Health Care System Was Underprepared

The exposure in March and April of this year of inadequate medical supplies and hospital capacity throughout the United States revealed a crisis four decades in the making. The shortage of ventilators and ICU beds was not a matter of poor planning — it wasn’t even a matter of criminal negligence.

It was the culmination of a conscious policy decision committed with intent. Intentional downsizing of hospital emergency capacity began 40 years ago during the Reagan administration, and has continued to the present — and now we’re paying the price.

Historian Mike Davis describes the consequences of “years of profit-driven cutbacks of in-patient capacity”:

“According to the American Hospital Association, the number of in-patient hospital beds declined by an extraordinary 39 percent between 1981 and 1999. . . . management’s goal of 90 percent occupancy meant that hospitals no longer had the capacity to absorb patient influx during epidemics and medical emergencies.”(5)

The upshot was that by March of this year, American hospitals could provide only 65,000 ICU beds, while the government’s own experts warned that the need for intensive care during a pandemic could amount to literally millions of patients.

Davis also exposed the roots of another critical deficiency in pandemic preparedness. Big Pharma has underinvested in antibiotic and antiviral research because it offers less profit potential. “Of the eighteen largest pharmaceutical companies, fifteen have totally abandoned the field,” he explains.

Drugs like Viagra and opioid painkillers like OxyContin are where the profits are, not defending against new diseases. Furthermore, “a universal vaccine for influenza — that is to say, a vaccine that targets the immutable parts of the virus’s surface proteins — has been a possibility for decades but never profitable enough to be a priority.”(6)

That is a powerful example of what motivates and guides and directs the pursuit of innovation today in the United States and most of the world. If human needs were the motivation, of course a universal flu vaccine would be a primary pursuit. But when the motivation is profit maximization for pharmaceutical corporations, it is not. A universal vaccine would undermine the profitability of the seasonal flu vaccines Big Pharma produces every year.

So the primary answer to the question “Innovation for What?” is “Innovation is for profit.” In our current socioeconomic system, it cannot be otherwise. But the COVID-19 crisis is beginning to raise public awareness that it doesn’t have to be this way.

Innovation should be, and could be, for the benefit of humanity — to eliminate poverty, hunger, disease and environmental devastation.  And not to multiply the horrors of war, but to eliminate war.

What Have We Learned?

The rapid collapse of large segments of the economy we are currently witnessing demonstrates the instability and the unreliability of our current system of production, distribution and consumption of goods and services.

Will the United States and global economies recover when the pandemic subsides? They might, but there are no guarantees.

Optimists predict a “V-shaped” recovery fueled by so-called “pent-up demand,” while pessimists fear that we may have permanently entered into what they call a “doom loop.”

One thing is certain: Small businesses will fail in large numbers, meaning the fruits of recovery will go to large corporate interests, further exacerbating the already intolerable level of economic inequality.

Here’s the multi-trillion-dollar question: Even if the economy does survive this initial COVID-19 shock, will it be able to prepare for future waves and future novel pathogens? It seems unlikely, because the precautionary measures that have to be taken go against the grain of corporate profitability.

As we have seen, corporate hospitals simply do not want to provide the excess capacity necessary to prepare for major emergencies. I suspect that the system’s limitations have only begun to be exposed.

A desperately needed innovation that the general public has recently become more aware of is universal health care insurance. The idea of “Medicare For All” suddenly seems much more reasonable as millions of workers lost their health insurance when they were laid off from their jobs.

Yet another revelation is that many of the workers who have been designated as “essential workers” — and required to risk their lives to do their jobs — are among the lowest-paid members of our society: shelf-stockers in grocery stores, slaughterhouse workers, and nursing-home caregivers, among many others.

We need an innovation in our production system to turn that upside down: Those who are most essential to the functioning of the economy, and take the greatest risks, should be rewarded proportionately to the value of what they do for all of us.

At the same time, some members of society have been exposed as not essential: CEOs, financiers, hedge fund managers and venture capitalists, to name a few. Their main concern during the meltdown has been to protect their own investments.

The invocation of the Defense Pro­duction Act to produce ventilators, PPEs and other necessary medical supplies dem­onstrates that the investor class is not essential to production. The investor class is essential to the functioning of the current economic system, but not to the one we need for survival.

The way to cut the investor class out of the picture is by nationalizing the major industries — not only the medical equipment manufacturers, but Big Pharma and the insurance industry as well.

 In our present system, the investor class organizes them, controls them, and becomes fabulously wealthy by taking all the profits for themselves. But we don’t need them to organize the production system. And then the profits could be returned to where they belong — to us — to the general public, to the society as a whole.

What We Need Now

While we’re nationalizing the medical corporations, why stop there? Let’s nationalize the fossil fuels industry and begin to solve the climate change problem.

Let’s nationalize the military-industrial complex so we can solve the nuclear holocaust danger. Imagine how much money that would save!

When people ask “How do you propose to pay for all the social benefits you’re talking about?” — there’s the answer.

The trillions of dollars now spent in the so-called defense budget would pay for all of it with a lot left over. And I say “so-called defense budget” because anyone who believes all that money is really necessary to defend us against enemies should consider how the trillions spent on nuclear weapons is protecting us against a few thousand Al Qaeda militants with their improvised explosive devices.

Finally, the crisis has revealed how completely wrongheaded Ronald Reagan was when he declared, “Big government can’t solve your problems. Big government is the problem.” The hypocrisy of the opposition to “big government” is most clearly revealed in the outrageously inflated military budget.

The politicians who slash education and health care and regulatory agency budgets are the same ones who provide massive funding to the Pentagon year in and year out. And there is the paradox in spades: The United States is governed by people who claim to hate big government while sustaining the biggest, most powerful government the world has ever known.

So after decades of austerity and cutbacks to essential services, what did we see when the economy began to shut down in the face of the pandemic? It wasn’t private enterprise that came up with trillions of dollars to ease the suffering of tens of millions of newly unemployed workers. It could only come from “big government.”

One thing this crisis has already demonstrated beyond question is that we absolutely need some kind of big government. The size and complexity of our society is such that it cannot exist without a high degree of organization, and that requires governance.

Unfortunately, the big government we actually have is not the big government we need. That was most obvious in the federal government’s pathetic response to the current crisis. Among other things, it actively undermined the science we needed to fight the pandemic. And way too much of their multi-trillion-dollar bailout wound up in the wrong pockets.

Here, then, is the bottom line with regard to necessary innovations. The innovation we need most is a complete transformation of our socio-political-economic system. That requires two preliminary innovations:

First, the key industries that we depend on have to be nationalized.

Second, the government we need to operate those nationalized industries has to be remade from the bottom up. It is not simply a matter of getting rid of the pathologically corrupt clowns who are running the United States now.

The entire system of government that is controlled by corporate financial power — including the military-industrial complex — has to be replaced by one that’s controlled by us — “We the People.” If we are to survive the three existential dangers facing us, we really have no choice.

I urge you to never forget that American policy today is controlled by a remarkably small number of billionaires. For every one of them, there are a hundred thousand of us. “We are many; they are few” — and therein lies our hope for the future.

Notes

  1. Clifford D. Conner, The Tragedy of American Science: From Truman to Trump, Haymarket Books, July 2020.
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  2. Rob Wallace, “Coronavirus: Agribusiness Breeds Another Deadly Epidemic,” Climate & Capitalism, January 29, 2020.
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  3. Rob Wallace, Big Farms Make Big Flu.
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  4. See: Rob Wallace, Alex Liebman, Luis Fernando Chaves, and Roderick Wallace, “COVID-19 and Circuits of Capital,” Monthly Review, March 27, 2020.
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  5. Mike Davis, “In a Plague Year,” Jacobin, March 14, 2020.
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  6. Davis, “In a Plague Year.”
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July-August 2020, ATC 207